Changing Politics, Changing Culture
My pal, Cameron Pritchard, who has gone from opposing the Iraq war to favoring it (a condition that affects a growing number of New Zealanders), announced the beginning of his own blog here, for which I congratulated him here. Check out Cameron's Blog.
I had a recent personal correspondence with Cam about Iraq, the recent elections there, and Cam's own switch in position, which he credits to Christopher Hitchens. Given that Cam emerged from Objectivism, I found it interesting that he'd be convinced of the pro-war position by a neocon-ex-leftist.
Cam himself finds this interesting, and remarked to me that each of us is a "former something," and that focusing on where people came from might be relevant, but it may not help us much to dwell on it.
I told Cam, however, that in this instance, we're really not talking about the leftist lineage of some neoconservatives.
We're talking about the architects of neoconservatism as a political ideology. What those neocons have absorbed from their leftist background is precisely the "synoptic delusion" for which Hayek criticized the leftists: They've gotten rid of the insanity of central planning an economy, and have basically endorsed the central planning of international politics through an engineered "democratic revolution" that sees politics as the driving force, and culture as the follower.
I remarked too that just as the leftist intellectual lineage of neoconservatism has harmed that ideology, so too the former conservative lineage of many "Objectivists" has harmed Objectivism as a movement. "There is something about these movements' intellectual lineage," I wrote, "that seems to affect how that ideology is shaped over time. It's as if the genetic imprint remains ... and leaves its mark. And, in my view, in both instances, the trace that is left behind has corrupted a lot of the remaining ideology."
I added, however, that I didn't believe Ayn Rand herself was an intellectual conservative in her ideological lineage, but I do think too many of her followers were/are. About two years ago, I had complained about the loss of the "radical spirit of Objectivism," noting a point made by my friend and colleague, Larry Sechrest, that "far too many Objectivists act as if they are conservatives who simply don't go to church." (Larry and I have co-authored the introduction to the forthcoming Journal of Ayn Rand Studies symposium, "Ayn Rand Among the Austrians.") Some of these conservative vestiges may be rooted in Rand's own pronouncements on such subjects as homosexuality, for example. Isolating these conservative vestiges, ripping them from Rand's broader, more radical, framework, however, is pure reification.
That kind of reification is on display in the Bush administration's attitudes toward "democracy" in the Middle East, which neoconservative policymakers believe can be implanted in foreign soil, regardless of the level of nutriment in that soil.
Cam has pointed out correctly that "culture is ... more fundamental" than politics, and that "cultural change is a requirement for lasting political change. But that does not mean, necessarily, that cultural change must precede political change." Cam draws from his study of South Korea, in this regard. Liberalization and democratization, he explains, are "essentially cultural problems," but
the cultural changes that have taken and are taking place there have been brought about often by institutional change. The opening up of South Korea's economy, for example, has led to a huge importation of foreign products and culture that are injecting a significant dose of individualism into Korea's younger generation, which is in turn strengthening the political and economic changes that have already taken place. That's a cultural change that came about through a political (or economic) change.
For Cam, "we mustn't underemphasise the possibilities even quite small institutional changes can herald for a culture. That's why I think Iraq has a chance."
Well, I agree. But note here that what Cam is pointing to is precisely the kind of cultural change that can only occur because of open markets in goods, services, and ideas. That is the kind of cultural change I've been arguing for in the Middle East—and worldwide. As long as cultural products can be exported to and absorbed by Middle Eastern societies, in the form of Western movies, books, journals, Internet publications, television, and so forth, there is a real chance for social transformation there. (I've written about this in entries archived here on the issue of Iran.)
It is indeed true that cultural change must start somewhere, even if it is in changing the political culture first. That's why it is, at the very least, a hugely symbolic first step for Iraqis to adopt procedural democratic rules in the crafting and selection of new governing institutions and political leaders. But planting a "constitutional democracy" in Iraq will not serve "US interests" if the "democracy" that emerges is an Islamicist theocracy.
I've long been skeptical of those on both sides of the political divide who seem to craft their political positions on the basis of short-run appearances. Who would have known that US support for the Shah for many, many years, would have been an important facilitating condition for the emergence and victory of a fundamentalist reaction in Iran? Or that a hostage crisis in Iran would have led the US into closer ties with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war? Or that US support of Hussein would have eventually deteriorated into the Iraq war? It is usually the case that the results of action—or inaction—are not felt for many years. We will not be able to compute the costs of the Iraq war for a very long time to come. But I do not believe that the emergence of a more religious, fundamentalist, Shi'ite-centered regime in Iraq, more closely allied to Iran, is in the interests of freedom and democracy.
This is something that has been pointed out by people on opposed sides of the political spectrum. For example, while antiwar advocate Juan Cole examines "The Downside of Democracy," Ayn Rand Institute junior fellow Elan Journo is busy skewering George W. Bush's "betrayal of America" in the Iraqi elections:
Consider the beliefs of the Iraqis who will be voting for "freedom" in the upcoming election. Like so many peoples in the Middle East, Iraqis regard themselves as defined by their membership in some larger group, not by their own ideas and goals. Most Iraqis owe their loyalties—and derive their honor from belonging—to their familial clan, tribe or religious sect, to which the individual is subservient. This deep-seated tribalism is reflected in the parties running in the elections: there is a spectrum ranging from advocates of secular collectivist ideologies (communists and Ba'athists) to those defined by bloodlines (such as Kurds and Turkmens) to members of various religious sects. ... Whatever constitution those leaders eventually frame will reflect their desire to arrogate power to their particular group and to settle old scores, such as the longstanding enmity between the Shi'ite majority and Sunnis.
However much I opposed US intervention in Iraq, I shed no tears for the destruction of the Hussein regime. But in the wake of that destruction, a vaccum exists that is being filled daily with the blood of Iraqis and Americans. A predominantly Sunni-Ba'athist insurgency grows, as does the threat of a growing Sunni-fundamentalist insurgency allied with Al Qaeda. This doesn't begin to capture the threat of a growing majoritarian Shi'ite movement with closer geopolitical ties to Iran. The use of enormous resources of US manpower, money, and munitions for this war, we have been told, is "to bring the war to the terrorists abroad." But such a strategy may very well be like bringing oxygen to a flame, a flame that might very well incinerate the streets of New York City in a way that makes 9/11 a picnic by comparison.
In any event, as I've suggested above, the instituting of procedural democratic rules is a very small part of the tapestry of freedom. If, indeed, economic liberalization goes hand-in-hand with cultural transformation, I'm not even confident on that score. The US has not transplanted free markets to Iraq; it has transplanted crony capitalism at its worst and has done little to break the culture of dependency in that country. As I wrote in October 2003, in reference to a John Tierney NY Times essay:
Saddam Hussein kept the "culture of dependency" alive for political purposes, since he was seen by the populace as the source of largesse. After sanctions were imposed on Iraq, he used "300 government warehouses and more than 60,000 workers to deliver a billion pounds of groceries every month—a basket of rations guaranteed to every citizen, rich or poor." The occupation seeks to replace "rations with cash payments or some version of food stamps," aiming to move Iraqis to the practice of "shopping for themselves." Barham Salih, prime minister among the Kurds in northern Iraq, states: "This culture has become one of the biggest obstacles to rebuilding Iraq."
One hopeful sign, perhaps, is that many who receive the rations engage in resale of the items they don't want, contributing to the proliferation of gray markets. But free markets are being resisted by those in power, and some argue that the transition to direct cash payments will have to be accompanied by price controls and central planning. It makes the introduction of market prices and personal decision-making that much more difficult. Building a "nation" based on liberal democracy—on free markets, civil liberties, and procedural fairness—is not something that can be achieved by mere writ. It requires a fundamental cultural change. All of this brings to mind an important passage from volume 3 of Hayek's Law, Legislation and Liberty. Most important in this passage is Hayek's emphasis on the tacit dimension, which is 'embedded', if you will, in traditions, beliefs, and cultural practices, a dimension that forever threatens the articulated designs of central planners of any sort—be they current socialists or former ones (e.g., "neoconservatives"). Hayek writes:
"[V]ery few countries in the world are in the fortunate position of possessing a strong constitutional tradition. Indeed, outside the English-speaking world probably only the smaller countries of Northern Europe and Switzerland have such traditions. Most of the other countries have never preserved a constitution long enough to make it become a deeply entrenched tradition; and in many of them there is also lacking the background of traditions and beliefs which in the more fortunate countries have made constitutions work which did not explicitly state all that they presupposed, or which did not even exist in written form. This is even more true of those new countries which, without a tradition even remotely similar to the ideal of the Rule of Law which the nations of Europe have long held, have adopted from the latter the institutions of democracy without the foundations of beliefs and convictions presupposed by those institutions.
"If such attempts to transplant democracy are not to fail, much of that background of unwritten traditions and beliefs, which in the successful democracies had for a long time restrained the abuse of majority power, will have to be spelled out in such instruments of government for the new democracies. That most of such attempts have so far failed does not prove that the basic conceptions of democracy are inapplicable, but only that the particular institutions which for a time worked tolerably well in the West presuppose the tacit acceptance of certain other principles which were in some measure observed there but which, where they are not yet recognized, must be made as much a part of the written constitution as the rest. We have no right to assume that the particular forms of democracy which have worked with us must also work elsewhere. Experience seems to show that they do not. There is, therefore, every reason to ask how those conceptions which our kind of representative institutions tacitly presupposed can be explicitly put into such constitutions."
One last point needs to be emphasized: The world does not stop functioning in the process of attempting to remake it. In my view, the constructivist "remaking of the modern world" should not be the guiding principle of US foreign policy. The world is always in process, after all. It is one thing to try to affect that process; it is quite another to believe that one can guide it.
The guiding principle of US foreign policy should be the protection of the individual rights of Americans. I am in full agreement with the neoconservatives, however, that a freer world is more desirable and that it is a necessary (though not sufficient) ingredient in the creation of a more secure world; my fundamental problem with the neocons is that they do not understand the complex conditions that foster either freedom or security.